Oh, Maggie


[dropcap]“[/dropcap][dropcap]I[/dropcap] think of her often still,” says local author Helen Potrebenko as she thumbs through her 1998 book, Letters to Maggie, an ode to her dear friend, sitting in the cafeteria of the building named after her friend — the Maggie Benston Centre. She describes the book, which was published seven years after Benston’s death, as a collection of stories that Maggie would have enjoyed.

“I still talk to her sometimes; tell her things she would have liked to hear.”

[dropcap]M[/dropcap]argaret Lowe Benston was born in 1937 along with her identical twin sister Marian Lowe in a small town south of Seattle.

With a PhD in theoretical chemistry from the University of Washington she was hired in 1966 to teach chemistry at SFU. She gradually shifted to teaching both chemistry and computing science, and in 1975 she helped to found the Department of Women’s Studies.

Along with fellow professor Andrea Lebowitz, Benston presented her plan to the SFU senate who were skeptical of a program in women’s studies. One even said that allowing women to have a women’s studies program was “tantamount to allowing prisoners to create a prison education program,” wrote Diane Luckow in a 2006 issue of SFU News.

Luckily, Pauline Jewett, SFU’s recently appointed president, was on their side and the vote passed. In January 1976, the first women’s studies course ran with 40 students. Now the department offers a number of programs including a masters and PhD. In 2009, the senate approved a name change to the Department of Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies.

After founding the department, Benston’s academic appointment evolved to be a joint appointment in both women’s studies and computing science.

“Maggie loved to say that she was then in two fields for which she had no credentials,” remembered Marian Lowe on the phone from Seattle.

Benston’s influential and pioneering research was at the intersection of how technology affected women and work. She spent almost 24 years as an assistant professor at SFU, and was promoted to associate professor shortly before her death in 1991.

Lowe shared a similar academic path as her sister and was for many years a member of the Chemistry Department and of the Women’s Studies faculty at Boston University. Despite the distance between them, the twins remained close and took advantage of sabbaticals to visit each other.

“I miss her all the time,” said Marian Lowe. “People used to ask us ‘what’s it like to be a twin?,’ but you know your own reality, and that was ours. For the past twenty-odd years I’ve felt like part of me is missing.”

[dropcap]P[/dropcap]otrebenko, who remembers Maggie as an activist, scholar, feminist, teacher, and most importantly as a close friend, met Benston somewhat accidentally.

Potrebenko was a mature student taking a course at SFU in the late ’60s which was taught by Benston’s partner.

Potrebenko phoned him, but got Benston instead. The two talked for quite a while and realized they had much in common. Thus began their long friendship and artistic collaboration through Benston’s musical group the Euphoniously Feminist and Non-Performing Quintet. The quintet was a performing group that would sing at rallies, protests, and on picket lines to support the activists.

When Benston became a Canadian citizen, Potrebenko was one of her sponsors, and she recalled the multitude of questions that the RCMP asked Benston to make sure she wasn’t an extremist or a threat. Her reputation as an activist was well-known, and they had records of all her speeches and involvement in protests, recalled Potrebenko.

For a time, Potrebenko and Benston both lived in a large house with many suites, and Potrebenko remembers her coming home with a guitar one day.

“To my amazement she said, ‘I’m going to learn to play the guitar.’”

Benston was never shy of a challenge, and took on new endeavours with a passion. She was the type of person who never said no to an opportunity or new experience.

As one of her PhD students Ellen Balka reflected, “She was generous with her intellect and spirit.” As Potrebenko said, “She was a happy person, and satisfied – she liked stories and singing, and she was always doing 10 things at once and running late.”

Potrebenko also reflected on Benston’s contribution to the Women’s Caucus that began at SFU, saying that Benston advocated for equal pay, childcare, labour rights, and various causes to improve the equality and the status of women.

Although there has been some progress, and women’s rights have improved, Potrebenko feels that women are now worse off than they were when Benston was alive. She cited the unacceptable levels of violence against women and the as yet unequal level of pay and positions of power granted to women.

Marian Lowe agreed, saying that there has been progress, but in some ways things have slipped backward. She thinks there is a general complacency now and a sense that feminism is no longer relevant or necessary.

“Women get to go to war now, but I’m not sure that’s progress,” she continued. “Hilary Clinton’s campaign has some sexism underlying it, but it’s not acknowledged. I think it’s seen as politically incorrect to be racist, but people still get away with saying sexist things.”

[dropcap]U[/dropcap]nlike many professors who focus primarily on their research, Benston felt that a university was for the students and that it should be involved in its community. It is very fitting that the student centre was named after her in 1996, but Balka finds it sad that Benston wasn’t able to have that recognition during her life.

“Every single time I drive past the Maggie Benston Centre, I imagine her laughing hysterically at having a building named after her,” laughed Balka.

Benston’s sister thinks Maggie would have loved having her name on the building and loved that her two favourite places on campus – the pub and the bookstore – were there. She also mentioned that Benston would have found it funny that, as a Marxist socialist, her building was directly across from the W.A.C. Bennett library, named after a conservative premier.

Balka, who was near completion of her doctorate when Benston passed away, met her at a conference in Toronto when she was studying in another graduate program. Benston suggested that Balka apply to the new Women’s Studies program at SFU, and even invited her to come to Vancouver for a visit.

“She offered to have me stay overnight at her house,” remembered Balka. “But I was too shy.”

After that initial visit, Balka was convinced and transferred to SFU. She would carpool up the hill with Benston and go for hikes with her on the weekend. She was much more than a professor to Balka, who described the way Benston would arrange dinners at her house to introduce Balka to influential figures such as Ursula Franklin, a physicist from the University of Toronto who wrote about the political and social effects of technology.

“She was an absolutely delightful person,” remembered Balka.

When Benston came out of remission and her cancer made her too ill to teach, Balka was asked to take over her teaching load. “That was one of the most difficult things,” she said, due to the emotional impact and the pressure of taking on her courses.

[dropcap]M[/dropcap]uch of Benston’s research studied the connection between socialism, feminism, and technology. Her first political paper, “The Political Economy of Women’s Liberation,” published in 1969, was extremely influential and was read around the world.

Marian Lowe remembered traveling to Chile with her sister in 1973 and meeting feminists there who had heard of Benston and her article. They also learned that there were groups of feminists in various parts of the world calling themselves “Benstonistas.”

It was clear that her work was having an impact, and her name was recognizable among feminists and those working for social change.

Through all of this, Benston remained steadfastly against the idea of being a leader, and always worked to empower others, work collectively, and never do anything simply for recognition. As Marian Lowe wrote in an article in the journal Canadian Women’s Studies, “Maggie believed strongly that an egalitarian, feminist, materially sustainable society was not possible without changing science and the way technology was developed and used.”

Along with her scientific research, Benston was involved in many other endeavours. She was a social activist, a feminist, an author, a teacher, and a musician. On top of that she was a skilled horsewoman and she knew how to sail. She was also an ardent supporter and volunteer at the Vancouver Folk Music Festival.

Sandy Shreve, a poet now living on Pender Island, was the Departmental Assistant in women’s studies while Benston was at SFU. She remembers Benston as “one of those people who made everyone feel comfortable.”

Shreve admired Benston’s insight, relationship with the students, and ability to be involved in so many initiatives at once. She was a very positive person, and Shreve said that through all of her cancer treatment, she handled it with dignity and never let her positivity fade.

Shreve wrote “Snow Sestina” for Benston shortly before she died, and explained that the poem is about the intersection of art and science that she felt Benston embodied: “The beauty of geometry in snow / is like a poem and the grin on your face / when I said I loved the math in words.”

Shreve wasn’t the only poet to honour Benston through their work. Potrebenko wrote “A Song for Maggie,” an emotional ode to her close friend which was set to music by Phil Vernon and performed at her memorial service. Benston had a very close group of friends, and as they each took shifts at her bedside, they referred to themselves as Maggie Companions. “MCing” they called it, recalled Potrebenko.

Benston’s goal through all of her many projects and associations was to change the world.

“It was all connected with her view of the world,” said Marian Lowe. “Maggie always said ‘you need to understand the world in order to change it.’”

And that’s exactly what she was doing through her research, activism, and teaching.

“She was suffused with the idea that things were wrong and could be fixed,” said Potrebenko. Benston was full of hope and she had a vision; she felt that rebellion was essential.

“You never really win,” Potrebenko reflected. “But the struggle and the fight makes you and society better.”

Marian Lowe and Potrebenko both feel that times have changed and although Benston would have been continuing with her activism, it seems increasingly difficult to affect real change.

“Things get harder and harder to find what to do in order to change things,” said Marian Lowe. “I think about Maggie when I think about what to do to change the world.”

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